Colonel Sanders' Battle to Become a Fast Food Icon
As one of the first fast food establishments to branch out internationally, Kentucky Fried Chicken has spread its southern hospitality to the far reaches of the world. The company’s founder, Harland David Sanders — you probably know him as Colonel Sanders — is an icon in American restaurant history.
What you may not know is that before the Colonel became a fried chicken mogul, he led a pretty unbelievable life. For starters, he wasn't even a real colonel, and he got fired from most of his early jobs. The incredible true story of Colonel Sanders is finger-lickin' good reading!
Became Man of the House at Age 5
Harland David Sanders, later known as Colonel Sanders, is most associated with the state of Kentucky, although he was born in Indiana in 1890 as the oldest of three kids. His father worked an 80-acre farm until he broke his leg in a terrible accident, and then he became a butcher.
Learned to Cook at Age 7
Harland's widowed mother, Margaret Ann, had to start working in a tomato cannery. The young "Colonel" learned how to cook, so his siblings could eat. By age 7, Sanders was already adept at preparing vegetables, cooking meat and baking "light bread," a complicated art.
Hired and Fired at Age 10
Following his father's death, Sanders' first outside job was as a farm hand when he was only 10 years old. A local farmer named Charlie Norris, who lived about 2 miles from his house, gave him a job.
Math Made Him Quit the Seventh Grade
Margaret Ann remarried in 1902, and Sanders found it challenging to get along with his stepfather. His teen angst caused him to drop out of school because he "lost out on a wrestling match with algebra." Sanders gave up on school and entered the workforce.
Started a Long Career with Railroads
At age 13, Sanders began painting horse carriages in Indianapolis. A year later, he moved to southern Indiana to follow in his father's footsteps on the farm. In 1906, Sanders asked his mother for permission to move to New Albany, Indiana, to live with his uncle.
Lied to Join the Army
That October, Sanders decided to lie about his age by forging enlistment documents to join the Army. However, he didn’t spend an entire career in the military, and he didn’t receive multiple promotions to become a colonel. He was only in the Army for a few months.
Fired as a Fireman
Sanders took a job with the Northern Alabama Railroad cleaning ash pans out of locomotives and making sure they were ready for the next trip. One day, the fireman didn't show up for work, so the engineer brought Sanders along to manage the steam from the locomotive.
Lived on $0.70 a Day
After Harland moved to Jasper, he met his wife, Josephine, when he was 18 years old. They were married a year later, and Josephine gave birth to his daughter, Margaret. Harland still worked for the railroad, but with the "extra" gang, who performed special trackwork, like laying new ties. He made 70 cents per day.
Fought His Own Client
Sanders entered the coal industry while concurrently studying law through La Salle Extension University. He eventually quit working in coal to practice law. After a wreck, the railroad's attorneys tried to convince the victims to settle for $1.
Fired from Insurance Sales
Following his return to Indiana, Sanders landed a job as a section hand with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He saw his cousins making a decent living and thought to himself, "I had the same blood in me that those other boys had. If they could make a living and wear white-collared shirts, I could too."
Started a Ferry Business
Harland's entrepreneurial spirit took over, and he decided that he didn’t want to work for someone else anymore. Even after all this, he still wasn't even close to entering the fried chicken industry quite yet. In 1920, he established a ferry boat company that operated on the Ohio River.
Failed at a Lamp Business
With the shares from his successful ferry business, Sanders earned enough to start a company that manufactured acetylene farm lamps. "Those were wonderful things for farmers who’d been living by coal oil lamps," Sanders explained. "A farm wife could even cook over acetylene light."
Car Accident and 42-Foot Fall
Sanders' move to Kentucky didn't involve fried chicken; it involved tire sales. One day, he was driving across a bridge, and the right cable broke. His car fell 42 feet, and he suffered some severe injuries. "There wasn't a place on my body that wasn't black and blue, and my head was split from one of my eyebrows through the forehead."
Got a Job While Hitchhiking
Sanders lost his tire sales territory due to the accident and found himself unemployed again. He didn't have a car, so he hitchhiked to Louisville to find a job. The person who picked him up was a state manager for Standard Oil, so the ride ended up serving as a job interview.
Sanders turned the business around with his excellent customer service skills. Word spread, and it wasn't long before he traded the service station in for a larger one with a garage. The Shell Company found out about his ability to sell gas and offered him a rent-free service station in the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky.
The First Chicken Business
Sanders and his family lived at the Shell station rent-free. The company built a two-bedroom house with a kitchen at the back of the station, so he decided to start a little restaurant business using his lifelong culinary knowledge. He also employed some marketing skills by painting "Sanders' Service Station and Café" on the sides of barns for 150 miles in each direction.
Involved in a Shootout
A large chunk of Sanders' business came from the advertisements he painted along the routes to his gas station and restaurant. A local competitor named Matt Stewart found one painted over one of his ads that directed people away from his business. He took it a little personally.
Birth of “Colonel Sanders”
"I don't care whether it's a king, a preacher or a potentate who comes to see you," began Sanders' credo. "If you give him good fried chicken with mashed potatoes, chicken cracklin' gravy, and hot biscuits and vegetables, you're giving him the best the American table can offer."
Hotel Destroyed by Fire
After a visit from one of the nation's most well-known food critics, Duncan Hines — yes, the name once belonged to a real person — he received an incredible review. The critique in Adventures in Good Eating stated that it was "a very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies. Continuous 24-hour service. Sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, hot biscuits."
Discovering the "Original Recipe"
Colonel Sanders' pan-fried his chicken from the beginning. It was a slow process that usually took around 30 minutes for each order, with the risk of coming out unevenly cooked. He spent a lot of time developing his secret recipe that includes 11 herbs and spices. While experimenting with the original recipe, he also discovered an efficient method for frying the chicken.
Keeping the Secret
For years, the Colonel's "Original Recipe" has been one of the most well-kept secrets in business history, and that secrecy gives the fried chicken an edge in an ever-evolving industry. Even Wendy's owner, Dave Thomas, applauded the concept of a secret recipe for its marketing genius.
World War II
After leaving his North Corbin restaurant and motel to his mistress, Claudia Ledington-Price, to run, Sanders sold the Asheville location due to rationing from World War II. He briefly moved to Seattle before the government asked him to oversee cafeterias at Ordnance Works in Tennessee. Later, he became an Assistant Cafeteria Manager in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Sanders knew he had to diversify to spread the word about his famous chicken. He franchised his secret recipe for the first time to Pete Harman from Salt Lake City, Utah. Harman operated one of the most prominent restaurants in the city. Within the first year, his restaurant sales nearly tripled, including a 75% increase in fried chicken.
The Colonel's Iconic Look
In 1950, Sanders was recommissioned as a Kentucky Colonel by Governor Lawrence Wetherby. After his recommissioning in 1950, Colonel Sanders began to dress in a black coat, which he later switched to white. He grew the infamous goatee that started to reach down to the string tie. Also, he began referring to himself as "The Colonel."
KFC-ing the Country
Due to reduced traffic, 65-year-old Colonel Sanders had to close down his North Corbin restaurant. He made the mistake of thinking that it would remain open indefinitely, and he needed to compensate for the loss. Armed with a small savings account and a $105-per-month Social Security income, he set out across the United States to further franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken.
It wasn't long before people started to approach Sanders about possible franchise options. The Colonel handled the business aspect of their company, while Claudia mixed the Original Recipe blend and shipped it to the restaurants. His franchise business blew up, and Kentucky Fried Chicken became one of the first U.S. fast food chains to franchise internationally.
Rapid Expansion and Sale
Colonel Sanders could barely keep up with the growth. He was able to protect his chicken cooking method with a patent, and then he trademarked the catch phrase "It's Finger-Lickin' Good" in 1963. Before he knew it, Kentucky Fried Chicken boasted more than 600 locations, and the work became too much for an aging Sanders.
Sanders Sued by KFC
Even though U.S. business operations transferred hands, Colonel Sanders retained the Canadian franchises. He also remained as the company's symbolic figurehead and spokesperson. The Colonel traveled more than 200,000 miles a year making surprise visits to franchises in addition to making television appearances.
Only Non-KFC with the Original Recipe
With his newfound fortune, Colonel Sanders and Claudia reopened their Shelbyville location under the name "Claudia Sanders, The Colonel's Lady." They served KFC-esque chicken as part of their full menu. After talk of expanding Claudia's, he was sued again by KFC's parent company.
The Death of the Colonel
Colonel Sanders was diagnosed with acute leukemia and passed away shortly afterward. He was extremely active and still appeared at franchise locations in his white suits up until a month before his passing. His body was on display in the rotunda at Kentucky State Capital before moving to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Chapel for his funeral.